While Civil Rights has been a catch all phrase from all parties to debates on justice, it remains the practical experience of a right that defines its existence and conformity with the ideals of a just society but Rights must be effective, not illusory. Just this week we have a government which is progressing through Parliament The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Of particular concern to many are the increased powers for police to respond to non-violent protests which would expand the circumstances in which police can impose conditions on protests, remove the need to knowingly breach conditions in order to commit an offence and introduce a broad statutory offence of public nuisance with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Against a background of this government`s tendency to take an authoritarian point of view in situations others would have temporised is another change in legal process which has been imposed upon the justice system by diktat; the single justice procedure.
It is no secret that there two widely held held opinions on the function of the long held positions of lay magistrates` participation in the justice system; many practising lawyers would like that system abolished and for District Judges alone to be in practice judge, jury and sentencer. On costs alone that has been rejected but in principle the second supposedly widely held opinion of governments per se is that the lay magistracy is the backbone of our courts system and will continue. Five years ago a major change took place in the manner in which minor non custodial cases were to be handled. No longer would offences such as non payment of TV licenses or council tax be heard before a bench of three magistrates in open court: instead they would be heard in private by a single JP assisted by a legal advisor. The government public information publication for the single justice procedure is available here. The historical footnote to which I referred above certainly does not apply with this form of so called justice yet opposition has been muted although the Magistrates Association unusually has in this event offered some criticism. The number of cases progressed through this procedure is shown below. It is apparent that the pandemic has reduced the rising trend in those numbers.
Latest statistics are that there are currently 12,333 magistrates serving c150 courts. They must have been successful in their threshold appraisal taken about a year after they have begun sitting. I am unaware whether undertaking the SJP is a compulsory or voluntary requirement of a magistrate. I retired immediately prior to its introduction and certainly have been opposed to it from the beginning. A major criticism in addition to its being conducted behind closed doors is the behaviour of those presented with a summons to appear in such a "court". A cause for concern is the numbers of defendants who do not enter a plea by post. All not guilty pleas are regarded as going to trial. No figures are available for the results of such trials or whether or not the defendants appear. It should be noted that interrogating Covid-19 offences in 2020 88.52% failed to enter a plea. As with other "no plea entered" they would have been found guilty. A complete record is below.
To put the above in arithmetical perspective:-
2015 2.38% guilty plea 74.52% no plea entered
2016 3.1% 71.61%
2017 3.46% 72.21%
2018 3.45% 72.26%
2019 2.95% 71.64%
2020 2.17% 70.65%
Covid-19 offences 0.57% guilty plea 88.52% no plea entered
The figures for those choosing to put their summons behind the clock on the mantelpiece or with the unpaid bills in a drawer are alarming. The chances of their appealing the decision or subsequent fine are unlikely owing to a variety of circumstances. Indeed the first time such a matter will have been brought home to them is liable to be a debt collectors` claim or a foot in the door. It is inconceivable that those who pushed through this so called procedure did not have advice that the tables above have shown; namely secret justice on the nod will not just garner little respect it will be ignored by those it was designed to ensnare.
It is nothing short of scandalous that magistrates, the Magistrates Association, notwithstanding belated reservations, and the so called unelected toads known as leadership magistrates ( use search box for details) have acquiesced in this process. What we today consider fundamental pillars of justice cannot be taken for granted and must instead be subjected to a continuous process of revitalisation, dialogue, and improvement. Only when this apology for justice is removed from our courts will be re-assured that this government is at least attempting to row back from its apparent proto authoritarian behaviour.